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Struggle for Conotrol: Sadr City

May 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Scott Wilson, welcome to the broadcast. Can you tell us the latest on this continuing insurgency between the Shiite militia and the U.S. Forces?

SCOTT WILSON: Early this morning, almost 24 hours ago really, there was significant fighting in Sadr City, which is a Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad. This is the latest in the fighting between Shiites and U.S. Forces across southern Iraq in Karbala and Najaf, two holy cities to the Shiite community which is a majority here, and in the last two days it’s spread to Sadr City.

Essentially what’s happening is that there is a rebellious young cleric, Muqtada Sadr. The slum here is named for his father, who is a respected ayatollah assassinated by Saddam Hussein. The fighting is hard to get a handle on. Mostly what the U.S. Forces are doing is they are being extremely careful in Karbala and Najaf. They are holy shrines in both places the United States does not want to damage. It would be extremely damaging politically to them if they did, or were blamed for damage to these mosques.

And at the same time in Sadr City, which is about a third the population of Baghdad, a very big place, a very complicated place to fight– small alleys, low buildings, lots of refuge for ambushes. And so what they’re doing is going in very gingerly, probing, rumbling through with tanks, and trying to get a hold on what is really kind of an insurrection among the Shiite community in many of these difficult places for U.S. forces to fight.

TERENCE SMITH: And what set off the battle that took place early this morning? What provoked that?

SCOTT WILSON: This has been something that some people have seen coming really. The three major Shiite population centers are not just Karbala, and those were the first two where the fighting began between Sadr’s militia known as the Mahdi army and U.S. forces, and so it was not unexpected. U.S. troops had tried best they could to surround Sadr City in recent days, really to keep Sadr’s militants from here traveling south to help out insurgents there. So the bombing that took place last night, which was really a symbolic strike against Sadr headquarters in Sadr City, something… a building they destroyed in April and destroyed again last night didn’t come as much of a surprise.

TERENCE SMITH: Scott Wilson, tell us what you can about this militia: How big it is, whether it’s well organized, whether it’s well armed.

SCOTT WILSON: Well, it seems to be well armed. The men who… one of my colleagues witnessed yesterday many, many of them with rocket- propelled grenade launchers, AK- 47s. They seem to have a lot of guns, a lot ammunition, but they are fairly ragtag. I mean, not a lot of military training. They respond to some degree to Sadr’s commands and signals, but there is a sense that there may be, you know, not a greatly unified command there, and many operate on their own. It’s dangerous to go into some of these places for journalists right now, and so it’s hard to get a sense of how controlled they are.

But the general feeling is that they are not particularly well disciplined, and in many of these places where they are sort of hunkered down in front of the American attack now, the communities themselves don’t like them very much at all, according to people who live there and U.S. officials. So it’s… they don’t think that they’ll be able to sustain this all that long, but trying to actually root them out militarily is very difficult. Even though the people may not want them there and believe that they’re jeopardizing these shrines and those in their business, frankly, it doesn’t mean that they’re going anywhere, and that it’s making it any easier for the United States at this point.

TERENCE SMITH: Scott, has the prison abuse scandal, which is all over the papers here in the United States, has that added fuel to this insurgency? Has that inflamed the situation?

SCOTT WILSON: It very much has. Sadr, in his sermon on Friday, used it directly to sort of fan the flames and whip up passions against the United States. He preaches each Friday down in Kufa, which is right next-door to Najaf, and said directly… called for an international court to hold trials, and threatened directly that if justice weren’t served in his eyes in this case that there would be attacks in very unexpected ways against foreigners in this country. And so he really is using it as a rallying point and a way to keep his people together and active and inspired in the face of what is a concerted U.S. effort at this point.

TERENCE SMITH: Given all the fighting, what are the prospects that U.S. forces can put down this insurgency between now and June 30, when sovereignty is supposed to be turned over?

SCOTT WILSON: Ideally what the United States would like is the Shiite community itself to handle this problem. Last week a number of very important Shiite leaders, clerics, tribal leaders, politicians got together and made a call for Sadr to leave Najaf, to leave Karbala, to stop essentially jeopardizing these holy places, at the same time calling on U.S. forces not to enter them either. But what they would really like to see happen is for the Shiites to apply pressure to this 30- year-old cleric, and get him to call in his people to put down their arms.

Complicating the problem is that Sadr is wanted by U.S. forces for the murder of a moderate Shiite cleric in April of last year while the war was still going on. And so he’s… he needs to sort of get out of this legal problem with the United States at the same time. The Shiite leaders are trying to work something out. Perhaps he could go into some kind of protective custody with elder respected Shiite clerics. But really ideally for the United States there could be some sort of deal arranged between Shiite leaders and Sadr and to avert any kind of an intense or intensifying military confrontation.

TERENCE SMITH: We’ll have to watch and see if it happens. Scott Wilson of the “Washington Post,” thank you very much for joining us.

SCOTT WILSON: Thank you.